New sustainability director discusses environmental challenges facing urban institutions

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Six years ago, Virginia Commonwealth University established its Office of Sustainability under the careful guidance of Jacek Ghosh, and now, following his departure this spring, a successor is ready to roll up her sleeves and pick up where he left off. Erin Stanforth, director of sustainability, comes to VCU from Portland, Oregon, by way of Boone, North Carolina.

Stanforth arrived at Appalachian State University in Boone straight out of high school with no idea what she wanted to study. It took a few times browsing the school’s academic catalogue and trying out a few classes that piqued her curiosity before she ended up in “Introduction to Sustainable Development.”

It was love at first syllabus.

Stanforth quickly switched from a communications major to the sustainable development program. A portion of the program’s curriculum required its students to complete a practicum at the nearby Goodnight Family Farm. While completing her studies at the farm, Stanforth was also busy managing a restaurant. It was her exposure to these two worlds that helped her see the disconnect between growing food and consuming food. Patrons of the restaurant she worked at had no idea where the food they were eating was grown, what the working conditions were like for the workers who grew the food or what happened to the leftovers at the end of the day.

This inspired Stanforth to start a composting program at the restaurant as well as a food donation program from the farm to a local nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger. In what little free time she had, Stanforth began volunteering with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which engages with migrant camps throughout three counties in North Carolina. She witnessed firsthand how produce is grown, how the people growing the produce are treated, how the produce is transported from farm to table and what happens to food waste after consumption. Seeing the big picture, she realized she is a systems thinker. She could see the web of sustainability connecting these different groups and processes and how she could improve the conditions of all of them.

She had found her purpose in life.

After college, Stanforth headed to Portland, Oregon, on little more than a casual invite from a friend to come and get involved. After first volunteering with an outreach program with the city, she took an entry-level position at Portland Community College and then worked up the ranks to sustainability manager.

Below she discusses her role at PCC, what brought her to VCU and where she sees the university headed in terms of sustainability.

Can you describe your work at Portland Community College?

PCC is a massive organization; over 90,000 students, 10 campuses and centers that span a four-county radius. Since PCC is a community college, there is a highly transient population that is heavily focused on skilled trades. This makes for interesting behavior change techniques, as the population is constantly changing.

While at PCC, I managed the recycling and composting systems for all major campuses and centers. I expanded our composting system to include post-consumer waste, which is something VCU will be able to do in the next two to three years.

I also worked heavily on supply chain analysis. PCC is the only community college in the country that reports publicly on greenhouse gas emissions related to purchasing. This means that all embodied greenhouse gas emissions -- from cutting down the tree for your notepad to the plastic that is wrapped around that notepad -- PCC reported on for every purchase. This heavily impacted our work and policies related to sustainable purchasing. This is something I hope to start at VCU.

What brought you to VCU?

I was looking for a position at a university that had a strong research department and a strong athletics program. Infusing sustainability practices into Residential Life and Housing, research and athletics departments have long been a dream of mine. I also grew up in North Carolina and have been trying to get back to the east coast for over a year now.

More importantly, I had a revelation while I was helping the city of Portland with outreach around their Climate Action Plan for lower-income neighborhoods. One Section 8 housing complex we went to had 85-90 percent of their residents composting inside of their apartments. It was then that I realized “sustainability is too easy here.” I wanted to take what I learned on the West Coast and bring it back to the South.

Two months into the position, what are some of the challenges you see facing the university in terms of lowering its greenhouse gas emissions?

VCU’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is purchased electricity. Currently, I think we lack outreach related to reducing electricity consumption for faculty, staff and students. I also think people are confused about how to recycle and what can be recycled at VCU. The Office of Sustainability is working on an outreach plan to educate all members of the university community about single-stream recycling. We will begin implementation next month.

Which existing sustainability programs are you excited about and passionate to see grow?

Single-stream recycling is a program that I want to incorporate specialized waste and composting into. I’m also excited to hear that Residential Life and Housing is in the process of recruiting volunteer green student leaders for each of the residence hall executive boards.

How can faculty, staff and students get more involved with helping VCU "Go Green?"

We need all the help we can get. Students can get involved through Green Unity or start their own student organization. See more information here:

Faculty and staff are welcome to start or join a Green Team in their own departments or building. Contact for more information.


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